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Now that Utah’s sensitive materials law is in effect, here’s what happens next

The library at North Star Elementary School in the Salt Lake City School District on July 6, 2023.
Martha Harris
The library at North Star Elementary School in the Salt Lake City School District on July 6, 2023.

Utah’s latest law restricting “sensitive materials” in K-12 schools went into effect July 1. The Utah State Board of Education will now create a list of any books that need to be removed from all of the state's public schools.

School districts are currently reviewing books that have been previously removed to determine if they fit the new “objective sensitive material” definition, meaning they’re “pornographic or indecent” as defined in state code. If at least three school districts or two districts and five charter schools report the same book to the state board, it must be removed from all schools. The board will let districts know by Aug. 5 which, if any, books have met that threshold. Schools would have to “dispose” of these books because they can’t sell or distribute them, according to the board.

Each district has appointed a representative who will keep sending the state board the titles of any books their district has deemed “objective sensitive material.” And going forward, the board will send out more removal notices if any more books meet the statewide threshold. The law does give the state board an opportunity to step in and overturn the automatic statewide removals if they desire.

Davina Sauthoff is the library media specialist for the state board of education and is one of the people in charge of tracking which books districts remove. She’s been holding office hours over the past few weeks to help districts and educators understand the new law.

Sauthoff said the previous sensitive materials legislation was a bit more broad and some districts interpreted the law differently. Some looked at books more holistically than others.

The new law, she said, has narrowed down what schools are supposed to be looking for in their reviews of challenged books.

The board amended its rules during its June meeting to match the new law and made guidance to help schools. The guidance makes it clear that a book isn’t “objective sensitive material” if it just references something, like a sex act. The book has to either describe or depict something “pornographic or indecent.” The law also goes beyond just books to include any material in a school.

Sauthoff said she hasn’t had any conversations about what this legislation means for specific books, noting the discussions have mainly been policy-focused.

“It's been two years since the first law went into effect,” she said.

The main concern now for district and school leaders is, Sauthoff said, “how they implement it, how they follow the law, and what they need to do to revise their policy.”

What Sauthoff has heard from educators is, “they want to make sure that they're following the law and doing what they're supposed to do.”

The new law could also change how much some librarians are involved with sensitive materials challenges.

When a book is challenged, a district committee will review whether it has “objective sensitive material.” Guidance from the state board says that the committee should include at least three people and one parent, but it can’t include those responsible for “procuring” the challenged material.

Sauthoff said she’s seen district leaders be proactive in planning for the law's implementation by reaching out and asking questions. She hopes this means districts will be able to provide guidance to educators and hopefully “allow [librarians] to spend more time doing what librarians do best, which is connecting with kids and, and, you know, purchasing materials that meet the needs of their communities and things like that.”

The other part of the law deals with “subjective sensitive materials.”

These are books that don’t meet the specified definition of “objective sensitive materials,” but schools find them to be “harmful” to minors and are “deemed to have no serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” when taken as a whole. If a book is removed for “subjective” reasons, they would not count towards any statewide removals.

Gretchen Zaitzeff is the president of the Utah School Library Association. In a statement, she said that her organization “stands firmly against the censorship and threat to local control and district sovereignty embodied in House Bill 29.”

The statement went on to say, “We believe this law is legally and fundamentally flawed. House Bill 29 threatens students’ First Amendment rights and their parents’ rights to make choices in regards to their own children. No other state makes a law that is enacted in Utah; no city creates an ordinance that is enforced in any other city. Why should the determinations of three school districts supersede the policies of every other Utah school district?”

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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